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Django and His American Friends: Must-Have Album #3

by John Cobley

Friday Feb 9th, 2024



The music on these two LPs ranks as some of the very best jazz before World War 2. It was all recorded not in the USA but in France. Over the last five years of the 1930’s, seven of the best American jazz musicians recorded seven sessions in Paris with Romani-Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt. Most of the American musicians involved had moved to Europe to escape racism (Eddie South, Bill Coleman, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Dicky Wells). Two were on tour in Europe with the Ellington Orchestra (Rex Stewart, Barney Bigard).


The promoters of these recording sessions were Hughes Parnassié and Charles Delaunay. They had started the French magazine Le Jazz Hot and were working tirelessly in the French jazz world as journalists, promoters and record producers. Their aim was to bring the famous American artists together with their genius guitarist Django Reinhardt, who was becoming well-known as a member of the Quintette du Hot Club de France.


Despite his inability to speak English, Reinhardt worked well with the Americans, so well that he inspired them all to play at their very best. His technical facility, his improvisational skills, and his empathy as an accompanist are evident throughout his “American Friends” recordings. Despite his gypsy-inspired style, he was familiar with jazz and the blues. 


One of the main pleasures from these two albums is the interaction between the Americans and Reinhardt. He was recorded close to the mike, so solos by the Americans often became duets with his guitar. Used primarily as an accompanist, Django did solo on some tracks. His solos on “Hangin’ Around Boudon,” “Big Boy Blues” and “Stardust” are standouts.”




Eddie South

Of the seven American “friends,” no one was more inspired by Django than Eddie South. There was a good reason for this. South had already studied Romany music in Hungary more than a decade earlier. So he had long dreamt of playing with Django. Parnassié, who was involved in the Reinhardt recordings, attested to South’s adulation: “South had an admiration for Django that knew no bounds…. Or rather, it was not admiration: Eddie was, one could say, musically in love with Django.” (Michael Dregni, Django, 136) Delaunay, who wrote Reinhart’s biography and witnessed Smith’s recording, said, “In the presence of Django, Eddie South played like he never played before or after.” (136)


South recorded twice with Django in 1937. The sessions produced four numbers and provide the opportunity to listen closely not only to South’s fine violin technique—he was classically trained-- but also to Reinhardt’s superb accompaniment. 


Without a doubt the first number they recorded, “Eddie’s Blues,” is the best. According to critics, there is a hint of Romany in South’s faultless and melodic blues playing that lasts the whole of the 03:05 recording (except for Django’s very brief intro and close). Each of the seven choruses is full of different ideas from South’s expressive violin. Reinhardt’s enhances these variations, but he never imposes. This is one of the finest duets in jazz.


Bill Coleman

Bill Coleman recorded three times with Reinhardt. After a stint with Fats Waller in the USA, he had moved to France because of racial intolerance in his native country: “A jazz musician was considered a human being [in Paris].” (Bill Coleman, Trumpet Story, 96) Of all the American “friends,” Coleman has the most recordings on these two LPs—thirteen. His elegant and powerful playing suggests he should have more recognition today.


Coleman is heard on three different sessions. The first was with the Garnett Clark band. Of the three numbers, “Rosetta” is the best. But the session, though well played, lacks excitement despite Reinhardt’s attempts to rev up the rhythm. Coleman’s next session with the Dicky Wells Orchestra 18 months later is full of excitement. This band was clearly inspired by Django Reinhardt. Spurred on by two supporting trumpets (Americans Shad Collins and Bill Dillard), Coleman soars repeatedly both in the ensemble passages and in his solos, playing some of his best ever music. “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” is perhaps the standout track. After Wells takes the opening, Coleman steams in with a great solo, beautifully constructed and memorable. As well, “I Got Rhythm” has Coleman in top form; he is always elegant even up tempo. “Sweet Sue” provides brilliant interaction between Wells and Coleman. The remarkable success of this session of six tracks owes a lot to Dicky Wells’ arranging and playing as it does to Reinhardt and Coleman.


A few months later Coleman took his own band to record with Reinhardt. However, the guitarist wasn’t at his best, and the session, despite Coleman’s valiant attempts, seems uninspired, especially after the Wells performance. Coleman used a mute on two tracks, but his sound lacks the impact of his open trumpet. Still, there was a fine blues duet with Reinhardt where Coleman almost emulates the duet playing of Eddie South in his Reinhardt duet.


Coleman Hawkins


The most celebrated of the American “friends,” Coleman Hawkins was the first to record with Reinhardt. On March 2, 1935, he recorded three tracks with a French orchestra that included Stéphane Grappelli. Despite the poor arrangements, Hawkins plays well, especially on “Stardust.” His solo is full of ideas and could have gone on far beyond the time limitation of 78rpm records. 


His second outing two years later is far better and has retained a high reputation. Well supported by Reinhardt, who is much better on this second session, he impresses on the upbeat “Crazy Rhythm.” But his best solo is on “Honeysuckle Rose,” where he is supported by Benny Carter’s memorable arrangement. Clearly both Carter’s and Reinhardt’s presence lifted Hawkins to new heights. He rarely played better.


Dicky Wells

Wells had played with many of the top USA bands (Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Teddy Hill) before moving to Paris. His group for the first half of the July 7, 1937, recording had three trumpets, with Bill Coleman leading. Thanks to both Wells’ arranging (esp. “Bugle Call Rag” and “Between the Devil”) and Reinhardt’s presence, this was a wonderful session. Many consider Wells’ playing here as the best of his career. His style is distinctive and sometimes daring. He plays the head perfectly on “Between the Devil” and “I Got Rhythm,” and solos well on “Sweet Sue” and “Hangin’ Around Boudon.” This session under his name is the best of all the Django sessions.


Benny Carter

What is immediately striking on hearing the two sessions with Benny Carter is the arranging of the saxes. Carter uses four saxes (two tenor/two alto) for both sessions. “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Crazy Rhythm” are especially innovative; their arrangements were later reprised for Carter’s 1961 albums Further Definitions. Carter’s elegant alto solos show why he was regarded, with Johnny Hodges, as the leading alto saxophonist in 1930’s jazz. His liquid tone and improvisation are a delight. Listen to “I’m Coming Virginia.” 


Carter also plays trumpet on two tracks. Again he plays with a beautiful tone and plays so well that it’s hard to believe that the trumpet was not his primary instrument.


Rex Stewart

Rex Stewart was on tour with Duke Ellington when he was invited to record by jazz impresario Hughes Parnassié. The Frenchman offered to bring Django Reinhardt to the session. Although Stewart had no prepared music except “tunes thought out in my head,” he consented. Stewart had nothing on paper when he arrived for the session with Ellington colleagues Barney Bigard and Billy Taylor. Not only was the recording studio below par but the drummer, Sonny Greer, failed to arrive. To make matter worse, Stewart found that Reinhardt had very little English. So he started by playing a blues to establish some rapport: “I was unaware of [Reinhardt’s] virtuosity and quick ear. To my astonishment he proceeded not only to play the blues but to embellish them with an evocative gypsy quality.” (Jazz Masters of the Thirties, 35) 


Despite all these problems, this April 1939 session produced five superb tracks. Stewart’s jaunty soloing style was well suited to Django’s rhythmic feel. Stewart solos on each of the five tracks with élan and authority, sometimes showing off his celebrated half-valve technique. The most notable is the virtuosic uptempo solo on “I Know That You Know.” Stewart throws caution to the wind as Reinhardt drives him higher and higher. He is faultless until the very end when he has one slight fluff. Human after all! On the slower tracks (“Low Cotton” and “Finesse”) Stewart plays just as brilliantly with well constructed solos and a fine tone. No wonder Ellington treasured him as a soloist.


Barney Bigard

Another Ellington stalwart, Bigard played second fiddle to Stewart in the April 1939 session. Nevertheless, he produced five memorable solos. His control of his clarinet is evident throughout. He takes the lead on “Low Cotton” and brings out the beautiful melody that Stewart had brought to the session (in his head!). And like Stewart, he demonstrates virtuosity on the up-tempo “I Know That You Know.”












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